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Julia Child, 1912–2004

Julia Child’s contributions to the art of cuisine were limited and controversial. Her contributions to the American table, however, were vast, because she was remarkably generous in launching others, because she worked well with teams, and because she had an unusual capacity for growth. This sense of being overwhelmed by her is based not on our one meeting at her Cambridge home (typically, she was playing host to French master chef Maurice Cazalis), but on what a wonderfully powerful model she was for late bloomers.

Like many current American food writers, Child didn’t grow up with fine food. In fact, she didn’t take an interest in cooking until she was 30 and had arrived in France (where native chefs generally grow up in family restaurants or at the very least are apprenticed at 14). This means that she was oblivious to the California cooking of her youth, the New York food of her early 20s, the food of her travel from Sri Lanka to China as a secretary for the Office of Strategic Services, and apparently even the Chinese food of her courtship period. When time machines get a little cheaper, I’d like to go back and check out some of the meals she ignored and picked at over those 30 years.

But for some reason, Child’s first meal in France woke up her palate; she went to cooking school, graduated, and then started her own cooking school with two Frenchwomen. This ability to collaborate with talents sometimes larger than her own, while still stamping the common product with her disarming personality, never deserted her.

She was past 50 when she did her first television show, entering a medium that had already defeated James Beard (a trained actor), Poppy Cannon, and a host of handsome entertainers we’ve almost entirely forgotten. Food is not primarily visual, and cooking is not much to look at. Why, then, did she succeed — and do so with an over-elaborate and already somewhat outmoded version of French cooking, at that? What did this tall, rather awkward woman with a voice comedians loved to parody have that so many American hobby cooks wanted?

What we wanted, and got, was her vision of a world in which do-it-yourself cooking opened up worlds of entertainment and fun. A lot has been made of her good-humored on-air mistakes, but what they dispelled was not anxiety about cooking errors, but fear of appearing unsophisticated. In any case, Child quickly became one of a trio of celebrity cooking experts, along with the late Beard and Craig Claiborne. And unlike so many celebrities in so many fields, she grew in office. She and her team turned back to American foods, welcomed cutting-edge chefs, and helped others to become real chefs, academic explorers of food history, and producers of new ingredients. (She was surely the first person not named Cousteau to televise a monkfish.) What she did less than any other food celebrity was lend her brand to "big food" corporations.

When I met her, in the mid 1970s, the day was all about Cazalis, a Norman of the old school who made us a classic pâté en croute, pommes soufflées, and tarte Tatin. You know: chopped liver, French fries, and apple pie. Only on a whole other level. Looking back now, it must have been that kind of menu that first captivated her — familiar foodstuffs transformed. I have a photo of her from that event, laughing and holding her belly, elbowing up for a closer look at the stove. She was six-two and big-boned, and she positioned herself like a power forward under the basket.

In some ways, my favorite of all her books is Cooking with Master Chefs (Knopf, 1993), produced for television and written when she was in her 80s. In it, she was able to bring out the essence of a diverse group of emerging American chefs, people who had moved far beyond the classical French orientation of her early days. In the late 1990s, this material was made into a CD-ROM, and Child’s personality made it the first cooking CD-ROM that was actually any fun to use. It may still be the only one.

I’ve probably made more recipes from that book than from any of her less collaborative ones. Of course, all of Child’s books were collaborations, and I’m reminded of her collaborative spirit every time I open one of the books she donated books to the Schlesinger Library. Like a lot of people, I made the coq au vin and the boeuf bourguignon from her early books — once. I thought, "There has to be an easier way," and set out to find it. Much the same thing happened to many others with her famous recipe for French bread. For me, Julia Child was always old, but never in the way.

Julia Child’s family has designated three programs for donations: The Culinary Trust Endangered Treasures Program, for which contact Trina Gribbins, 304 W. Liberty, Suite 201, Louisville, KY 40202, (502) 581-9786 ext. 264, tgribbins@hqtrs.com; COPIA Julia Child Culinary Program Fund, for which contact Christi Skibbins, 5020 First Street, Napa, CA 94559, (707) 265-5911; and AIWF Julia Child Circle, for which contact Mia Stageberg, 633 York Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, (415) 642-0425, mstageberg@hqtrs.com.

Issue Date: August 20 - 26, 2004
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